Alexander Pope once wrote that "To err is human; to forgive, divine."
John Dewey later remarked that "Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes."
We've spent much of our year in AP Lang learning about close reading, critical thinking, analytical and persuasive writing, and how to speak respectfully yet critically of justice, morals, bias, racism, and more. Now, it is time for us to learn about our errors, our mistakes -- how and why we make them, how to be aware of their existence, and how to learn from them. Each of the books listed below represents a "synthesis" essay (book) about human mistakes and how we think. They are also common reading assignments in entry-level college communications, rhetoric, and culture classes (and came highly recommended by a few of Mr. Tibbens' former students now studying at prestigious universities across the country).
Students should look up each book. Read some reviews. Ask around. Rank book choices from most-to-least desirable. Do not purchase, borrow, or otherwise obtain a book until after in-class sign-ups and group assignments. Mr. Tibbens will do his best to honor students' book requests/priorities, but some adjustments may be required in order to have functional, balanced groups. ~Sign up the book you actually want to read, not just one that your friends are also choosing.~
Once the assignment "goes live," students must obtain copies of their books, read critically, and annotate for three concepts/features: 1) Use/synthesis of evidence, 2) Tone shifts, and 3) Insights about being wrong (content). If you have questions about the books or the associated assignments, contact Mr. Tibbens via email.
Disclosure: Students may obtain books via the Amazon.com links below, other book sellers, the school or public libraries, or other sources. Students are encouraged to use a print copy of the book, rather than an ebook/audiobook, for annotation purposes. The English dept. does not own copies of these books to lend, as has been the case for most previous assignments; if this presents a hardship for your family, contact Mr. Tibbens via email as soon as possible. Purchases made via the Amazon.com links below cost you no additional money, but a small percentage of each purpose go back to supporting this website and additional materials/supplies for classroom use. Contact Mr. Tibbens if you have any questions or concerns regarding the books, links, etc.
Book #1: The Coddling of the American Mind
Book #2: Being Wrong
Book #3: Talking to Strangers
Book #4: Thinking in Bets
By Ryan Tibbens
Public school teachers will attend tens of millions of hours of division-prescribed professional development this year. Almost none of it will help teachers learn more about ‘what’ to teach and ‘why’ to teach it. Nearly all of it will focus on ‘how’ to teach. That is ridiculous.
First, let’s acknowledge the power of pedagogy and honing one’s craft. Teachers should be constantly learning and sharing methods, increasing their arsenal of strategies to engage and affect an increasingly distracted and diverse student body. Teachers must also work purposefully to learn about new technologies and how to implement them (or not) in order to build “21st Century Skills.” Professional development must always include a consistent and sincere focus on pedagogy.
However, ‘how’ to teach is useless if the teacher does not know ‘what’ to teach or ‘why’ to teach some topics in depth, others in brief, and others not at all. Because teachers have traditionally been regarded as gatekeepers of knowledge, and because the first requisite qualification for work is a college degree in the discipline, many people falsely assume that teachers already know enough about their content. That is patently untrue.
Before we even worry about content-specific knowledge, let’s consider teachers’ general academic aptitudes. On average, teachers scored below average on the SAT when they were in high school. 54% of elementary teaching candidates fail the Praxis I test on their first try. Most data indicate that teachers have an average IQ of, well, around average. Praxis II (content-specific test) data is harder to come by, but even basic score ranges indicate great variation and suspicious pass rates. I’ve heard more teachers make the “Cs get degrees” joke than I care to count.
I’m not arguing that teachers are stupid. Most teachers are smart, hardworking, and functional in the classroom. Approximately 10% of teachers earned SAT scores in the top 20% (still a striking underrepresentation though). I’m simply arguing that teachers, on average, are average (particularly in lower grade levels). And we can all probably agree that, on average, we don’t remember too much detail from our own public schooling. But that’s what college is for, right? Uh-oh. Check out what the National Council on Teacher Quality found in a survey of elementary teacher preparation programs:
The teacher does not need to be the most intelligent person in the room based on IQ, but the teacher does need to be the most knowledgeable, the most aware, and the most (justifiably) confident. I remember being in classes when there was no doubt that the teacher was in the bottom half based on IQ and only somewhere around the top quarter based on content knowledge – it was the worst part of school for me.
So what do we do? Let’s get real. Let’s stop pretending that pedagogy and technology are the only things that teachers need to be trained on. If we’re going to sit through dozens of hours of mandatory professional development each year, is it crazy for a couple days to address content knowledge? Public school leaders always talk about creating “life-long learners” and “critical thinkers,” but how is that a likely outcome when teachers don’t learn more about their content? How can we promote interdisciplinary connections and PBL if we don't learn more about the other subjects their students study? If you don’t know stuff, you can’t think stuff; and if you can’t think stuff, then you can't do much. Let’s empower our teachers.
Pedagogy is great. Technology is fine. But if we spend all our time worrying about “how” to teach without supporting “what” and “why,” then we’ve done our teachers, our taxpayers, and, most importantly, our students a great disservice. Bring back content-based professional development to inspire teachers’ curiosity, passion, and overall performance.
By Ryan Tibbens
I was recently shocked and amazed and horrified by certain responses to a popular tweet that read “Serious question... What is one non-salary related incentive your district could offer you to boost teacher morale? Superintendents, listen up.” Around 20% of the early responses focused on wearing jeans to work. Are you fucking kidding me?
Administrators: Quit bitching about teachers wearing jeans. And quit charging money to wear jeans – that’s not even a sensible fundraiser. That’s it. Just shut up and deal with real problems.
Teachers: Quit bitching like your pants are your most severe professional problem. If jeans are actually among your biggest concerns, then one of these statements is true: 1) You work in a nearly perfect school, are compensated well, have students who are well cared for and prepared, and have full community support (i.e. You’re delusional); or 2) You are too damn stupid to identify real problems and prioritize them, and, as a result, you should not be teaching. That’s it.
The Great Teacher Jeans Debate.
Some of you just rolled your eyes: “Not again.” Others had a very different response: “What debate? They’re just jeans…” Interestingly, both responses are appropriate. A tweet by @ModestTeacher helped bring this “problem” to my attention. Modest Teacher writes, “Serious question... What is one non-salary related incentive your district could offer you to boost teacher morale? Superintendents, listen up.” Through a bit of luck and selective memory, I was generally unaware that teachers’ legwear is such a contentious issue. I quickly scrolled through the hundreds of comments/replies to his tweet and counted no fewer than 20 comments about jeans, possibly more. Reducing class sizes, giving teachers unencumbered planning time, and increased autonomy are the only topics that appear to have received more support, and their counts are only marginally higher than jeans. Somehow, this is a big deal, but it shouldn’t be. Let me explain.
In some school divisions, the school board, superintendent, or building administrators have made rules against teachers wearing jeans to work. In some places, the policy is sacrosanct. I recently saw this post in a private principal/administrator group on Facebook: “Sadly, I just have had a staff diagnosed with cancer. Staff wants to raise funds. Original though was pay to wear jeans, but jeans are a no. Other ideas?” That principal went on to clarify that it is a district-wide policy; the rule is absolute with no exceptions or adjustments.
I student-taught at a high school that had a strict faculty dress code: men must wear button-down shirts with ties, dress “slacks,” no visible tattoos, no facial hair. At all. I had a friend who worked in a neighboring school and had to wear long sleeves, athletic compression sleeves, or gauze bandages to cover a beautiful tattoo on her forearm – as though making a 6th grade teacher look like a recent suicide survivor was less concerning than body art. As a student teacher, I had no choice in my placement, so I objected to the facial hair rule, and once they made that exception, I took the liberty of wearing a polo shirt on Fridays (and sometimes Mondays). The principal was quite serious too. After student-teaching there in the early spring, I was hired as a long-term substitute at the end of the year. The principal called me into his office to discuss the dress code (I kept using my modified version), general “professionalism,” and a picture of me holding a plastic disposable cup on my MySpace page (STFU, I’m old). After making passive aggressive assaults on my shirt, beard, and social media presence, he offered me a full-time job beginning the following fall. He saw no humor or irony. Since the quality of my work warranted a job offer, despite my “unprofessional” appearance, I took the additional liberty of wearing jeans on my final two Fridays at that school.
At my first full-time teaching position, the principal was relatively strict about pants as well. During my tenure there, at least two teachers were stricken with cancer and one birthed a child with severe disabilities. In response, the school community rallied together and supported each person in need – through paid “Jeans Days.” The concept was simple – Pay $5 (or maybe it was $3 at first), and wear jeans to work, with all funds going to the faculty members in need. I never really objected to helping those people, but the idea that my pants somehow affected my work was patently ridiculous. I made a habit of wearing jeans on “Jeans Day” without putting my money in the collective jar (I occasionally paid; other times, I slipped a few bucks directly into those teachers’ mailboxes. Sometimes I didn’t pay at all). I have no problem helping coworkers in need. What I have a problem with is the idea that I should pay to wear a pair of cotton pants textured differently than my normal cotton pants because one texture is somehow better for education.
Let’s be clear – pants CAN matter, but usually they don’t. In arguing that the “Jeans Debate” is stupid, I’m not arguing that we should entirely disregard pants. Assless chaps, thong bikinis, Daisy Dukes, or stinking, dirty, unwashed pants can present actual impediments to learning. But how are blue cotton jeans substantively different from tan cotton khakis? Sometimes people say, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” That’s how you can spot the future administrator-wannabes early – too many suits, too many pleats. For me, dressing for the job I want would mean sweatpants or mesh gym shorts or loose, comfortable khaki shorts – the job I want is “retired.” But the analog to that is dressing for the job I have. The job I have is educating high school students, a job I can perform better when the students find me both professional and relatable. Things 16-year-olds don’t find unprofessional? Jeans. Things 16-year-olds don’t find relatable? Pleats.
As we push for more and more motion in the classroom, more “active” learning, more kinesthetics, it seems reasonable for teachers to be comfortable enough to move. This is one more reason that PE teachers are the smartest people in any high school – they receive the same pay and benefits but do a small fraction of the planning, grading, and remediation of core content teachers AND they get to wear warm-up pants and shorts all the time. If a PE teacher can wear comfortable pants because they dress appropriate for their tasks, then I ask you: shouldn’t an English teacher wear whatever kind of wild Bohemian, beatnik writer bullshit he wants? Or maybe he’s thinking about reading… so he should wear pajamas. Right?
If you are a public school administrator who feels that jeans must either be banned or paid for, I have bad news for you – you’re an idiot or asshole. Maybe both. You probably have several thousand things that are more important, more pressing, in your building (namely, students). I started out by saying that I’ve had the good luck to forget all about the jeans controversy, and that is because I’ve spent nearly ten years working in a great school that prioritizes students and education. Our administrators focus on things that matter, and while professionalism certainly matters, wearing iconic American pants is not interpreted as a problem.
If you are a public school teacher who feels that wearing jeans is among your top professional needs or priorities, I have bad news for you – you’re an idiot or asshole. Maybe both. You probably lack the big-picture awareness necessary to accurately identify your students’ needs, your own professional needs, or the needs of your school system. You probably lack the intelligence and critical thinking necessary to teach students well. You also probably lack the attention span and reading skills to have made it this far down the page.
EVERYONE – FOCUS ON THINGS THAT MATTER. Jeans don’t matter.
(And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of writing something like this about something that doesn’t matter.)
By Ryan Tibbens
Before proceeding, please read this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education in which they detail JMU’s X-Labs class, a new project-based, experience-based, experimental design in which students work collaboratively and creatively. At least read the first half. Okay, fine, here’s the essential concept for you bums: "Tackling big problems is the point of JMU X-Labs, a four-year-old experiment in undergraduate education. Through a blend of interdisciplinary collaboration, project-based learning, and unscripted, open-ended research, each course takes students through the long and often aggravating process of developing new ways of thinking about complex problems. They might design drones to help with environmental problems, tackle foreign-policy challenges, build autonomous vehicles, or develop medical innovations to help with the opioid crisis. If everything goes well, students will produce a prototype of a product, plan, or service in 15 weeks." [Link]
If that sounds interesting, check out the article and JMU X-Labs’ website. If that sounds ridiculous, it might be even more important for you to check out the article because the education pendulum is swinging fast, and project-based and/or interdisciplinary learning (hopefully) is coming next. Whether you want to ride or dodge the pendulum, you should know more about interdisciplinary learning than your school’s mandatory training is providing, including what is happening at the college level.
I find myself in an interesting position because of my age and role as former student and current teacher. See, before No Child Left Behind was implemented, there was already a growing call for some standardization or assessment to merit a high school diploma. I graduated from high school in Pennsylvania in 2001, which means I completed a “Senior Project” as my standard assessment to earn a diploma. Of course, the PSSAs (statewide standardized tests) were introduced soon thereafter, and the project-based graduation requirement went by the wayside. As a student, I neither loved nor hated the Senior Project. I complained about it with all my peers because it was new and because the previous graduating class didn’t have to do it and because none of my teachers seemed too interested. But in process, the work wasn’t bad because I picked something I liked, and I made my own plans, timeline, and goals. The only real requirements were that the project must take a minimum of 100 hours to complete (between freshman and the beginning of senior years), it must yield demonstrations of learning in three or more subject areas (I think), and it must culminate in a 15+ minute formal presentation to school shareholders (teachers, parents, administrators, and community members) with a Q&A at the end. Now, as states try to reduce the number of standardized tests students take (particularly in non-Common Core states like Virginia), “Senior Projects,” internships, and performance-based assessments are all the rage.
While many teachers, students, and researchers will argue that a shift away from the intense, nearly-constant testing of the last two decades is good overall, few seem clear on what should be next. This is usually a discussion about assessment – not learning. Most states and school divisions have no serious plans to abolish the traditional subject areas, to reduce the number of required courses in each subject, or to give students more choice or opportunities to specialize. Public schools (and their governing bodies) seem content to continue the status quo in terms of curriculum and course offerings (after all, they’re noncontroversial, safe, and easy to schedule). Instead of offering real choice, as learners might experience in college or the job market, schools are now promoting more “student voice and choice,” more station work, more targeting of learning styles, and ubiquitous differentiation within each separate subject. And that is insane.
This kind of planning is time intensive and complicated, reducing a teacher’s ability to work one-on-one with students, reducing relationship-building, reducing any potential “authentic” experiences by keeping them divided by subjects, reducing the efficiency of planning and grading. Sure, a project in my English class might include content from history or math, but the students will receive no credit for it in those classes because not all my students are in the same maths or at the same levels or with the same teachers. Instead, they’ll surely be assigned yet another project or learning-style-station activity in that class, further burdening them with time-consuming projects that won’t cross over to other subjects.
Enter true interdisciplinary learning. Rather than have teachers in each subject area pretend to provide choice (I’m serving up one entrée, but you can pick your sauce), why not give students a real opportunity to choose their classes? Why not give them the chance to enroll in a class that exists solely for the purpose of activating their brains through self-selected, interdisciplinary, project-based learning? More and more universities are creating interdisciplinary, project-based courses; more and more companies are looking for young employees with these experiences. These experiences lead to a wide variety of personal and academic growth, and because everything occurs in one class, it is no harder to schedule than anything else. How can we make it happen? While the final goal might be for all school work to take this form, we have to start somewhere. First, offer the interdisciplinary class; then, to make sure students actually enroll, adjust the number of required courses in each subject area, or allow the new class to substitute and earn a credit in whatever subject area the student chooses. Rather than push for more choice inside each strict, narrow subject area, we must give students real choice (while giving teachers expectations they can manage AND giving administrators courses they can facilitate).
“Student voice and choice” within mandatory classes in separate, traditional subject areas is fake, phony, fraudulent. If we really care about student engagement, creativity, and higher order thinking, we need to create a class solely based upon the principles of interdisciplinary, inquiry-based problem-solving. And once we do, I want to teach it.
Extra: For additional commentary on the problems with education dogma, including learning styles, check out ClassCast Podcast Ep.016: Learning Styles < Relationships.
Pictures courtesy of JMUXLabs.org.
By Ryan Tibbens
Check this out: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/performance-artist-eats-120-000-banana-duct-taped-wall-calls-n1097696?cid=sm_npd_nn_tw_ma. It's funny, right? An artist, previously best known for creating a $1million solid gold toilet (recently stolen from a British palace), created a new piece called “Comedian,” which is composed of a real yellow Cavendish dessert banana duct taped to a wall. Someone paid $120,000 for it. When stories of this “art” sale hit major media outlets, those media outlets also reported the public’s “outrage.” Then, two days later, the same media outlets reported that a man claiming to be a “performance artist” ate the banana, without permission, in a performance piece he calls “Starving Artist.” Again, we were told that people were outraged. People can act outraged by the money wasted, the people who could have been helped, the degradation of art, or even the general stupidity; but reality is even more outrageous.
First, we are asked to believe this is newsworthy – some jackwagon tapes a banana to a wall; then some rich idiot pays the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree worth of tuition, room, and board for it; then some other jackwagon eats the banana. Then the art gallery curator “replaces” the banana – new banana, new tape. Their spokesperson said, “[The performance artist] did not destroy the art work. The banana is the idea.” If this is newsworthy, then we have two options: we're all idiots, OR the artists are geniuses because they are forcing us to reflect on what art is, what money is worth, what people are worth, and how to deal with idiots.
Consider the absurdity of the following screenshots from NBC and Fox News:
Second, in terms of wealth, the top .01% of Americans (~200,000 households) own as much wealth as the bottom 90% (~110,000,000 households). The top 10% own as much wealth as the entire middle class. I’m not a communist, but when there are nearly 500,000 unconvicted people sitting in jails, most because they can’t afford bail, and some wealthy paint-sniffer buys a banana and eight inches of tape instead of freedom for thousands of people… Well, ready the guillotine. 12.4% of US households live below the poverty line (and a whopping 48% of people in Puerto Rico). There are tens of thousands of families who earn less than $15,000 per year, and all those families know that bananas cost about 60 cents per pound – PER POUND. They also know that an entire roll of duct tape costs about five bucks. Some people don’t know what things cost because they don’t have to pay attention. The current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is massively wealthy – her family controls more than $5,400,000,000 (BILLION) dollars, nearly all of it inherited. Despite the fact that she’s never held a regular job, DeVos could buy “Comedian,” the taped banana, 45,000 times and still live like a middle class person. When the people running the country live like THIS (seriously, click the link – you will be amazed and nauseated), while the median American home is approximately 2,300 sq.ft., we have a problem, and it’s bigger than some banana art.
It seems every time I hear a debate over refugees and asylum, somebody says, "It's not that I'm opposed to helping, but we can't even afford to take care of our own." But that's not true. We can take care of our own. We can take care of every person in the country if we want, and substantially more than that too. We choose not to.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this artwork isn’t the real story – wealth inequality is. You don't have to be a communist to agree that something is wrong, and you don't have to be a communist to see that massive wealth inequality is bad morally and economically. If you’re outraged by the banana art shenanigans but don’t connect the absurdity to excessive wealth, then your outrage is misplaced. The banana art is just a symptom of the problem. And who knows? Maybe the artist was trying to make this point all along. For now, eat your bananas, and eat the rich.
By Ryan Tibbens
(Order information available at the bottom.)
The novel, which follows a white tweenager and black man as they run away from abuse and oppression down the Mississippi River, is not only anti-slavery, but anti-racist as well, an uncommon position in the 1880s. Many modern Americans fail to realize that even most abolitionists held intensely racist beliefs. However, Mark Twain was not among them. After being asked about black students entering prestigious universities in 1885, Twain had this to say: "I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it." Twain went on to pay the full tuition and costs at Yale Law School for Warner T. McGuinn, one of the first black students at the school and later a lawyer praised by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and others. The point here is that the novel is not a promotion of slavery or racism; instead, it is biting satire of all the worst parts of American culture (in Twain's eyes) -- racism, slavery, abusive parents, alcoholism, blind nationalism, religious revival movements, bawdy entertainment, con men, and stupid, ignorant, gullible, and mean people of all kinds. Unfortunately, people have always misunderstood the book. After its initial publication, it was criticized as "indecent" and "shameful" because of its humor, its use of a child narrator, its use of dialect, and even its anti-racist message. By the second half of the 20th century, people began to object to the book's inclusion of the dreaded "n-word." However, even that criticism was not always genuine or fair. Many people who objected to the book's message of racial equality and inclusion used the racial slur as an excuse to remove the novel from schools. More recently, people offer sincere objections to the book's racial slurs. One professor, Dr. Alan Gribben, recently revised and republished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through a company called NewSouth Publishing; in his text, he replaces every instance of the word "nigger" with the word "slave." Gribben claims to have made the change to reduce teachers' and students' discomfort with the text and class discussions; however, it renders the book colorblind. Gribben's edits put modern readers' focus on slavery, which had been illegal for nearly two decades when Twain published the novel, rather than race, which is the real core of the book. Consider that Twain writes and publishes this book in 1884 but sets it in the 1830s or 1840s. Why? Because a story with a race-related moral would be better understood by his audience if put in the context of slavery. When we replace racial terms with slavery terms, we confuse the issues. We forget that the vast majority of slaves in world history have not been black and that the vast majority of black people who have ever lived have not been slaves. Surely Twain opposed slavery, but the slavery issue was mostly settled at the time of publication. This is a book about (and against) racism. People's objections to Twain's use of the n-word are fine on the surface, except that the book is among the most anti-racist books of its era, perhaps any era; the language is more symptomatic of time period and realism than intent. That is not to say that readers' concerns, objections, and feelings aren't legitimate -- they are. Revered history professor Sterling Stuckey says, "In my judgment, 'Huck Finn' is one of the most devastating attacks on racism ever written.'' As intelligent, culturally-literate Americans, we must deal with a tough question -- should we ever be asked to experience discomfort on our journey to enlightenment?
Enlightenment is at the heart of this great novel. In perhaps the plot's most important moment, young Huck grapples with society's ethics, his own morals, racism, slavery, and his loyalty to his friend Jim, a runaway slave. When faced with a decision between leaving Jim to be re-enslaved far from home, returning him to his 'rightful' owner and be re-enslaved, or defying all his school, church, and social learning by working to free Jim from his new captivity and continue to help him find freedom -- a decision between doing the 'right thing' according to society or the 'right thing' according to his heart -- Huck declares, "All right then, I'll go to hell." Huck may not have achieved true enlightenment just yet, but he makes a choice that he never regrets and that shapes his future acts -- he will always do what is right, regardless of what society says.
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a leading candidate for the title of 'Great American Novel.' It incorporates important elements of our national ethos: rugged individualism, naturalism and realism, complicated history, racism, slavery, coming of age, and -- above all -- the ongoing struggle between personal morals and social ethics. Because of the book's language, fewer and fewer teachers use this book, often deciding that "it just isn't worth the trouble anymore," but growth is rarely easy, progress requires a struggle, and art thrives on challenges. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though not perfect, is special, is purposeful, is thoughtful, is moral, decent, and a must-read for any person desiring better understandings of morality, racism, or American culture.
This book deserves an A+ for its literary innovations, cultural significance, and educational offerings.
Support ReadThinkWriteSpeak by using these links for purchase. You pay nothing more, but Amazon sends us a small portion of each sale to support this website and local classroom needs.
ORDER INFO: The first book link above (McDougal Littell Literary Connections) is recommended because it the copy that Mr. Tibbens has and that the school offers. Class discussions and lectures will include book references and page numbers from that edition; it is available for purchase via the link AND for free borrowing from the school book room. The Bantam (2nd above) and Dover (3rd above) editions are of similar cost and quality, though the Bantam version has slightly larger margins for annotating. The Norton (4th above) is a nicer binding and includes analytical and informative support texts, but it does cost a bit more. The 5th book is a reprinting of the original text, including illustrations and other extras from early printings. Any original, unabridged edition of the book is acceptable for class use. Ebooks and audiobooks are widely available (often for free/cheap), but they make annotations extremely difficult, so they are not recommended unless paired with a traditional hard copy. Contact the teacher with questions.
Just for fun...
Because no one else